Thursday, July 20, 2006

Meanwhile, Iran gets on with its bomb

Con Coughlin, The Telegraph:
The UN Security Council should this week be discussing how to punish Iran for refusing to halt its uranium-enrichment programme. Instead, the world's leading powers are trying to bring a halt to the escalating violence in Israel and Lebanon, and Iran's nuclear programme has fallen off the international agenda.

It would be an understatement to say the mullahs in Teheran are delighted by this. But then, for them at least, it was hardly unexpected.

Ever since Iranian exiles revealed the existence of the radical Islamic regime's top-secret uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz three years ago, Teheran has used every conceivable tactic to impede international attempts to halt its attempts to acquire an indigenous nuclear capability, which the West's intelligence community is convinced will ultimately result in an Iranian atom bomb.

The work of the inspectors dispatched by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to examine the Iranian programme was obstructed at every turn. Even Iran's offer to suspend its enrichment activities proved to be bogus. IAEA officials now privately concede that Iranian scientists took advantage of the year-long suspension to refine their enrichment techniques, so they were able to make rapid progress when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unilaterally resumed the programme earlier this year.

Iran's duplicity so sorely tested the patience of Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, that he concluded the issue should be resolved by the Security Council. That was supposed to happen in New York this week after Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, walked away last week from an EU offer to help Teheran with the development of a nuclear power industry.

But just as world leaders were steeling themselves to confront the threat that Iran's nuclear programme poses to international security (the subject was also due for discussion at last weekend's G8 summit in St Petersburg), two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped by Hizbollah, Iran's proxy militia in southern Lebanon, thereby lighting the current conflagration.

Just how much responsibility Teheran bears for initiating hostilities remains unclear, but certain facts are now emerging that indicate the timing of the Israeli soldiers' abduction was no coincidence. To start with, there is the visit Mr Larijani paid to Damascus last week after his discussions in Brussels with Javier Solana, the EU's foreign affairs representative, ended without agreement. Apart from fulfilling his duties as chief nuclear negotiator, Mr Larijani, a former Revolutionary Guards commander, is chairman of Iran's national security council and a close confidant of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spiritual guardian of the Islamic revolution and the driving force behind the attempts to acquire a nuclear weapons arsenal.

During his stay in the Syrian capital, Mr Larijani briefed Syrian intelligence officers about the nuclear talks and the latest developments in Iran's mutual defence co-operation with Damascus. Mr Larijani then met senior Hizbollah representatives.

The following day, Hizbollah launched its operation against Israel's northern border, kidnapping two soldiers and killing eight others. The operation had been more than a month in the planning, and Teheran dispatched a team of 20 Iranian Guard commanders to southern Lebanon in mid-June to oversee the preparations. There were also shipments of military equipment, including surface-to-surface and anti-ship missiles: the Iranians were well aware that Israel would not tolerate an attack on its northern border with impunity. READ MORE

Apart from helping Hizbollah to carry out the initial attack, the Revolutionary Guard contingent has remained in Lebanon to operate the sophisticated Iranian-made weapons systems that are being used against Israeli military and civilian targets. They have worked with Hizbollah to direct the missile barrages that have caused havoc in the northern Israeli port of Haifa, and Revolutionary Guards fired the Chinese-made Noor anti-ship missile that hit an Israeli warship, killing four sailors.

Whatever Iran's motives for starting this conflict, the events of the past week have not all been to Teheran's advantage. A robust response from Israel was to be expected, but not even the Iranians could have predicted the ferocity of the Israeli counter-attack, directed as much against Lebanon as against Hizbollah. One consequence of Israel's destruction of much of Lebanon's newly built infrastructure is that Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, now seeks the same ultimate resolution of the conflict as Israel - the disarming of Hizbollah.

The Iranians will also have been surprised by the failure of the world's major powers to intervene. While there has been much criticism of Israel's "disproportionate" response, none of the leading powers feels inclined to act in any way that might be to Hizbollah's benefit. This is particularly true in America, where the Bush Administration has made it plain it is in no hurry to get involved, so long as the conflict is confined to its current parameters. The White House is well aware of Iran's sponsorship of Hizbollah, and has in effect given Jerusalem a free hand to do whatever it believes is necessary to destroy Hizbollah's effectiveness.

The eradication of Iran's most important foreign ally would be a serious blow for the ayatollahs, and was clearly not one they took into their calculations when they precipitated this crisis. But even if Teheran has overplayed its hand in southern Lebanon, Iran's leaders will console themselves that it is a sacrifice worth paying for the maintenance of its all-important uranium-enrichment programme.

As even Dr Hans Blix, the dovish former UN weapons inspector, conceded this week, if Iran's programme continues at its current rate of progress, Teheran will have an atom bomb within five years.
An absolute must read.